No One Wants To Talk About It: Mental Illness In My Family

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Almost every therapist and doctor I can remember seeing for my depression has always asked some version of the question, “Does anyone in your family live with mental illness?” It’s standard procedure, but this question is annoying to me for the same reason I hate being asked to name the first day of my last menstrual period and then getting the side eye when I admit that I truthfully, honestly, do not know. What, like I’m supposed to keep track of that kind of thing? I’m supposed to just know that? I don’t track my period because I try not to think about it when it’s not happening. For perhaps similar reasons, I don’t know for sure if anyone in my family lives with mental illness. I’m not a doctor. I’m in no position to diagnose anyone. Also, that’s not the kind of thing anyone in my family talks about. So like, maybe? None of this information is helpful to anyone who’s ever tried to treat me for anything. Still, when I finally discovered a missing piece of the puzzle, it helped change my perspective on my own depression.

My family is made up of two practically diametrically opposed halves. My mom’s side of the family came to the U.S. from Cuba as refugees fleeing the Communist Revolution. I’ll never really know the whole story about what happened before they came, only that it isn’t something to be discussed. The way my mom says it, when you’re an immigrant, survival is the main objective. There’s no time or resources to process the trauma and PTSD. You just have to keep on living, because what other choice do you have? The only way to move is forward. My dad’s side of the family is of the Midwestern variety that doesn’t believe in feelings, sickness, or anything that might be perceived as a weakness. Everyone is either very sad, very angry, or both, and no one wants to talk about why, or how, or consider that maybe those feelings aren’t the only option. To this day, though I’ve been tried talking openly with him about my struggles with mental illness, my dad has never acknowledged the fact that I live with depression. He just tells me I’m a whiny young person and I’ll grow out of it.

After college, I had a depressive episode and overall life breakdown. I moved in with my mom, and we fought constantly. I felt like a failure for being sad; she felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough to be happy. I couldn’t get out of bed and behaved like a huge dick because I was sad and numb and eventually just felt nothing, and I know I said a lot of hurtful things. My mom kept telling me how she wished she had the luxury of being depressed, that when life is difficult you can’t just lay down and let yourself shrivel up into nothing, and I felt that she didn’t understand. When I finally started taking antidepressants, I thought she’d be happy for me, that I was on my way to getting better, but she kept telling me to try other options, and I kept telling her I’d tried all of the options, and we got in a huge fight that ended when she broke down and told me about my uncle who’d died of suicide. He’d died when I was little, but I never knew why. My mom told me about how he fell into a depression when he couldn’t get out of Cuba and was eventually prescribed Prozac, but the Prozac only made him feel worse. She was afraid the same would happen to me.

Eventually I got better. I started seeing a therapist, the Zoloft started working. Mostly, I got better because my mom saved me. She was there when I wouldn’t leave my bed, when I didn’t want to be alive anymore, and she never gave up on me. I wouldn’t be alive without her.

I knew she’d never told me about my uncle because she didn’t want to scare me, because that’s not the kind of thing you tell your children when a family member passes away. Knowing about it doesn’t make my depression get better, or make his death any easier, but it helped me know about part of my family’s history and makeup that gets passed down. I could feel this way again, but I don’t want to, and hopefully I won’t. But if I do, and I might, I’ll know that just like our hair and skin and eyes, this is something that runs in my family. Then I’m less afraid.

Seeking treatment for mental illness doesn’t make me weak. I have access to resources my parents may not have had access to, and I’m trying to break the cycle that no one wants to talk about. I don’t know why I sometimes feel the way I do, but I do, and I know I’m not the only one. I’m just trying to be better.


Sofia Barrett-Ibarria is a writer, comedian, and notable queer about town in Los Angeles. Read her on xoJane, AfterEllen, Nerve, and other corners of the Internet.